PART still apart from law

GAO Report: Performance Budgeting: Observations on the Use of OMB's Program Assessment Rating Tool for the Fiscal 2004 Budget

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The tool used to assess programs' effectiveness helped guide officials in management recommendations, but it is still not effectively linked to the budget planning law, the General Accounting Office said today.

The Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART), an element of the President's Management Agenda, is intended to rate program performance and help in budget decision-making, concepts laid out in the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) of 1993. But the relationship between the two is strained, GAO said, and challenges remain in ensuring PART is an effective tool.

"One of PART's major impacts was its ability to highlight [the Office of Management and Budget's] recommended changes in program management and design," with less of an affect on funding issues, the report states.

In a review of OMB's use of PART in the fiscal 2004 budget process, GAO found that more than 80 percent of the recommendations involved program management and less than 20 percent impacted budget decisions. Although OMB officials often recommended that programs deemed effective receive increased funding and ineffective programs see a cut, that was not always the case, GAO's report states.

Therefore, PART's value lies in the actual implementation of the recommendations, which requires sustained oversight, GAO said. With a focus on making program changes, OMB needs to be able to track the progress. "However, it is not clear that OMB has a centralized system to oversee the implementation of such recommendations or evaluate their effectiveness," the report states.

OMB will incrementally increase the number of programs assessed by 20 percent each year, increasing the burden on the agency's officials. One way to address that is to focus on comparing similar programs to one another. Currently, programs are not compared, though OMB officials have expressed plans to do so.

"Selecting related programs for review in a given year would enable decision-makers to analyze the relative efficacy of similar programs in meeting common or similar outcomes," the report states.

Further, PART rates specific programs against general principles, requiring OMB staff to use judgment, which was not always consistent, GAO said. About half of the 234 programs assessed in fiscal 2004 received a "results not demonstrated" rating because the outcome information was insufficient. OMB officials have made changes to the tool for fiscal 2005, but GAO recommended they continue to clarify output vs. outcome measures, the report states.

Where GPRA presents a high-level strategic planning framework, PART assesses specific performance. However, there is tension between the two and their relationship is not always clear, GAO said. The tool's process in the fiscal 2004 budget "was a parallel and competing structure to the GPRA framework," the report states.

"PART is not well integrated with GPRA," it states. "Agency officials we spoke with expressed confusion about the relationship between GPRA requirements and the PART process. Many view PART's program-by-program focus and the substitution of program measurements as detrimental to their GPRA planning and reporting processes."

GAO officials suggested that the relationship be better articulated. It is important for stakeholders to have confidence in the tool's effectiveness, the report states. It also recommends OMB officials address the capacity concerns around the number of programs to be rated, strengthen guidance to the tool and broaden the dialogue with congressional stakeholders.

In comments to the report, OMB officials agreed with the findings, GAO said, and outlined plans to tackle some of the recommendations. For example, officials plan to refine the process for tracking implementation of the PART recommendations and continue to improve implementation of GPRA plans and reports, the report states.

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